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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Programming History: Black History Month in Scotland – The Skinny

There’s such depth to Black history. It is complex and joyful and oftentimes painful – but it is also so often buried by centuries of violent colonialism coupled with a particularly unhelpful strain of white guilt. Black History Month, taking place in October every year, pushes back against this erasure.
Since 2001, CRER (Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights) have coordinated Black History Month in Scotland. It’s a collaborative programme, with participation from multiple charities, community groups, and heritage organisations. In this, Nelson Cummins, CRER’s Black History Month Coordinator, hopes “the programme reaches and involves as many people as possible.” Such collaboration also ensures that the month resists a hegemony upon history. There is no fixed narrative; rather, multiple voices and stories converge together, all speaking to Black history in their own distinct way. 
But coming together is crucial in more ways than one. “It’s also quite a political month,” says Cummins. Whether platforming issues such as police brutality or the lack of Black history education in schools, Black History Month is key for involving both the public and various organisations on anti-racist campaigning and action.  
As part of the wider movement to improve how museums engage with Black history, October is essential, offering a focus through which direct change can be implemented. Cummins notes just how valuable Scotland’s many free museums are to access to culture, and, specifically, to Black History Month itself. “I think it’s important to bear in mind that museums are really important spaces for telling stories of identity, for telling stories of Black history.” Museums are, of course, complex spaces, usually built upon a colonial slant. However, simultaneously, they’re also spaces where stories are granted a physicality and a presence that can aid the preservation of histories.
In a Scottish context, there’s much to think and rethink on our approach to museums and Black history. “It’s important to acknowledge the ways in which Black history in Scotland is unique… unique to Scotland as a place and [as a] history, whilst acknowledging that there are lots of different ways in which the approach to Black history in Scotland can learn from the approach to Black history in other places,” says Cummins. As such, Museum of Empire and Slavery (4 Oct, 5.30pm) sees CRER joined by Liverpool’s International Museum of Slavery and Washington’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), providing a crucial discussion envisioning a Scottish museum of slavery and empire. 
“It’s not actually too hard for a lot of museum spaces in Scotland to find something in their collections or in their space that speaks to something in Black history,” says Cummins. “And I think that’s what’s been quite positive.” Crucially, there’s Black history within these collections that wasn’t stolen from African nations amid violent colonial exploits. Simply, Black history is a part of Scottish history. The notion that it’s not is a fallacy, propping up both white nationalist ideologies and the nation’s inclination towards a particularly damaging exceptionalism. 
There are, of course, areas of Black history that aren’t so well documented and mediums that rarely explore Blackness in a Scottish context. “We realised actually finding films that have a focus on Black Scottish history was very difficult. And even though there are are some very good ones, it’s very difficult,” explains Cummins. This year, Glasgow Film Theatre’s Black History Month programme includes titles such as The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show (10 Oct, 6.15pm) and the much-loved Burning an Illusion (17 Oct, 5.30pm). Although the programme doesn’t feature films exploring specifically Black Scottish history, it’s crucial that Black stories are still being shared on the big screen. “It’s an important chance to be able to use those events to ask that question of why there aren’t more films about Black history in Scotland,” says Cummins. 
Noting gaps in past programmes has been key to approaching this year’s one. Scotland’s culture scene loves Glasgow and Edinburgh, almost obsessively so. While they may be the country’s biggest cities, this fixation contributes to a damaging exclusion. Participation in Black History Month – or any cultural event, for that matter – should not require an all-too-pricey ScotRail journey. Accessibility is always of the utmost importance. And, crucially, Scotland’s Black history existed and exists outwith that thin, horizontal strap of the Central Belt. Testament to this, community-based research group Woven Together Dundee share some of their findings on Dundee’s links to slavery for a special live event at the University of Dundee (12 Oct, 6.30pm). Meanwhile, events in smaller towns – such as the JOM Charity’s Black History Month exhibition in Kirkintilloch (1-31 Oct, excluding Sundays)  – are a reminder that Black history is not bound to city borders. For Cummins, the future must see their scope further widened still. “Even though it’s positive to see a lot of the events that we have outside of Glasgow and Edinburgh and outside of museums and university space, I think there’s probably still more work to do to reach more community organisations as well.”
It’s a programme which has very clearly been structured in tune with the realities of people’s lives in more ways than one. So many cultural events span weekends and weekdays, with talks and workshops scheduled at all hours. But, for many, weekdays are filled with emails and back-to-back meetings, with little time for a tea break, never mind a workshop on decolonisation. Instead of 11am panel discussions and 3pm walking tours, the programme caters to its audience with an emphasis on lunchtime and evening events on weekdays. 
Like all events over the past two years, Black History Month had to adapt to COVID regulations.  “It was very Zoom-heavy,” says Cummins. This had its benefits, ensuring even those in the further corners of Scotland can participate. However, the return to in-person is highly welcome. Black History Month is as much rooted in our present connections as it is our past ones. There’s a certain ritual to the aftermath of an event. Shuffling past a group of people, you catch a comment, someone’s throwaway thought that brings new meaning to the event. Offering a shy smile, an inaudible ‘thank you’, to a speaker who has guided you for the past hour. Whether in a bathroom queue or a congested doorway, small talk may slip into something more weighty, becoming something to hold on to amid everything else. For the African diaspora in Scotland, these incidental moments of connection are invaluable – there are, simply put, not all that many of us, and events such as these are not all that common. There’s a physicality that, although not always necessary, is certainly much desired; after all, there is only so much connection over the pixelated screen of a Zoom call. The importance of in-person events returning for Black History Month this year cannot be overstated. However, the programme still has many online-only or hybrid events. For instance, the African Caribbean Elders in Scotland society (ACES) will share extracts from their recent book project, celebrating the lives and experiences of African and Caribbean communities in Scotland, while also reflecting on racism within the same country. It’s truly a programme that looks to inclusion, rather than exclusion.
It’s crucial that all ages can engage too. For children aged five to twelve, Josie Ko’s October Holiday Workshops explore Black histories and stories through art. “It is so important to educate the next generation of children about the importance of Black History Month and give them the knowledge to know the truth behind the city they are growing up in. This is an education that I lacked growing up and so many adults still continue to not be educated about,” says Ko. The workshops will see participants respond to imagery that links to Glasgow’s colonial past as well as tying in GOMA’s recent Revisiting the Work of Black Artists in Scotland Through New Collecting, which platformed the work of Black artists who have lived or worked in Scotland. “Art allows us to think while making and inspires really interesting conversations, no matter how young you are.” 
There is no one way to engage with Black history and this year’s programme truly reflects this. A walking tour of Dundee, Breaking the Chains (13 Oct, 11am; 19 Oct 2.30pm), explores the city’s economy in relation to slavery through visiting locations where enslaved people publicly spoke, sharing their experiences. Amid multiple walking tours in Glasgow, the programme also includes bike tours by Bike For Good (18 Oct, 5pm-6.30pm; 11 & 25 October, 1.30-3pm), exploring Glaswegian involvement and participation in transatlantic slavery. A little more grounded – in-person at Glasgow’s Hidden Gardens, or online via Facebook – roundtable discussion Seeds of Change (28 Oct, 7-8pm) explores the impact of empire and transatlantic trade upon Scotland’s horticulture. Held at Beacon Arts Centre, Southern Fried (22 Oct, 11am-1pm) sees Dr Peggy Brunache lead a workshop celebrating the cooking of enslaved people in the Caribbean, the food facilitating new insight into their histories. Encouraging active participation, the programme ensures the fullness of Black history is truly understood, and not simply witnessed. 
For CRER, the month is also a celebration, providing an opportunity to find joy in Black history and within Black communities. Particularly unmissable is Shades: Black and Queer Cabaret, performed in both Edinburgh (15 Oct, 6pm) and Stirling (13 Oct, 7.30pm) venues. The eclectic cabaret pulls together a range of performing arts, all in celebration of Black and queer stories. Expect something striking, joyful, and moving. 
It’s set to be a month of coming together, reflecting together, and learning together. One month is never, and will never, be enough time to fully explore Black history. The hope, however, is that Black History Month will lay the groundwork for further much-needed anti-racist discussion and action in Scotland throughout the year. This October certainly seems to put such hope in good stead. 
Find out more about this year’s programme at blackhistorymonthscotland.org


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